Prepared and approved by the CIOFS Presidency in April 2004, and offered to all the National Councils.

1.    Terms of the matter

With the new Pauline Rule “isolated secular Franciscans” no longer exist: they all belong to a local or personal Fraternity and are admitted by its Council. Furthermore, participation in the life of the Fraternity is part of the Form of Professed Life.

Even before the Vatican Council it was necessary to participate in the “monthly assembly” with a certain legalistic rigour. The voluminous “Practical-Juridical-Historical Manual of the TOF” by Fr. Antonino of Sant’Elia (1947) reads “The tertiary negligent in attending the assembly is to be advised, punished with a “healthy” penitence and may be cancelled from the list of the Fraternity if he or she continues to be negligent.”. Article 153 of the Constitutions of 1957 reads: “The tertiaries who have been warned three times and refuse to observe for a three-year period the obligations of the Third Order are to be dismissed from the Order by the Provincial Commissary taking into consideration the circumstances of places and times”.

The identity crisis suffered by some Fraternities after the Vatican Council led to a certain tolerance towards absenteeism and lack of participation in fraternal life. Many brothers and sisters wandered away and their behaviour was in no way formalized, either by themselves or by the Council. This situation was tolerated for years, and is so now, due to a lack of clear orientation on the matter.

When the system of a financial contribution based on the number of members of each Fraternity was adopted, the problem of absent members, who nonetheless were counted in statistical data, was brought into the open. Some Fraternities introduced the distinction between “active members” and “non-active members”; others even went to the point of indiscriminately “crossing out” those members who had not made an appearance for quite some time.

The General Constitutions of 2000 have clarified the procedure to be used in cases of absent brothers and sisters and this procedure is the subject of the present document.

2.    Distinctions

The local Councils cannot treat all the absent brothers and sisters with the same criteria in due consideration of the fact that various types of hindrances exist:

  1. The elderly and the sick. These people must be treated specially and be offered a special service by the Fraternity. The elderly have already contributed their share. If they cannot go to the Fraternity themselves, the active members must go to them and support them in every possible way, both spiritually and materially. Regarding the financial contribution, they will continue to contribute, if possible, with the maximum comprehension and tolerance on the part of the Fraternity Council.
  2. Sporadically hindered members. Those, who for any reason, are legitimately hindered to participate in the meetings, but not in a permanent manner. They must make a point of justifying their absence and possibly give prior notice.
  3. Permanently hindered members. They can be brothers and sisters who cannot attend the Fraternity on a permanent basis for reasons connected with their work or studies, family commitments or a change of residence to a location where there is no SFO Fraternity. They do not cease to be secular Franciscans for reasons such as these. They should explain their situation to the Council and ask for exemption from attending meetings. They should try to keep up to date with the life of the Fraternity also by making their financial contribution, which is a way of showing interest and communion with the Fraternity. The Fraternity, in turn, will find the means and way to keep in touch with them.
  4. Unjustified absentees. This case falls within the “repeated and prolonged default in the obligations of the life of the Fraternity” contemplated in art. 56.2 of the General Constitutions. The reasons may be manifold. It is not our duty to judge or condemn these brothers, but neither can we ignore their “default”.

The first three hypotheses of absences indicated above were dealt with in circular n.11/02-08 dated February 22, 2004 of the Formation Commission. This Commission is also conducting a survey to investigate the extent of the phenomenon and gather indications on the initiatives and proposals to adopt in such cases.

The fourth hypothesis, that of unjustified absentees, defined by the General Constitutions as “members in difficulty” requires not only pastoral but also juridical action for the possible adoption of provisions foreseen by the Constitutions.

3.    How to deal with “members in difficulty”

Each case should be treated individually according to the provisions of the Rule, n. 23: “Members who find themselves in particular difficulties should discuss their problems with the Council in fraternal dialogue”. Two different hypotheses are provided for by the General Constitutions: temporary provisions and definitive provisions.

Temporary provisions: consist in temporary withdrawal or temporary leave from the Fraternity, on the initiative of the brother or sister in difficulty (GC art. 56.1), or in suspension by decision of the Council (GC art. 56.2), to be communicated in writing to the person concerned.

Withdrawal from the Fraternity, whether voluntary or as a result of suspension, must be noted in the register of the Fraternity. It involves exclusion from the meetings and activities of the Fraternity and the loss of right of active and passive voice, but membership in the Order itself is not affected, in conformity with the GC art. 56.3.

Re-admission is provided for in the GC, art. 57.

Definitive provisions: in this case also is it necessary to distinguish between definitive voluntary withdrawal and dismissal (expulsion) from the Order. The way to proceed is described in the GC art. 58.

  1. In cases of voluntary definitive withdrawal from the Order, the person concerned submits a motivated request to the Minister of the Fraternity. The latter, after a fraternal dialogue with him or her, informs the Council. The Council makes its decision with a secret vote and communicates it in writing to the person concerned. Definitive withdrawal is recorded in the register of the Fraternity and communicated to the Council of the higher level.
  2. Very serious reasons are required for dismissal (expulsion): “serious causes, external, imputable, and juridically proven” (art. 58.2). The same applies to cessation, specifically referred to cases in which the brother or sister “publicly rejects the faith or defects from ecclesiastical communion or upon whom an excommunication is imposed” (art. 58.3). We shall not deal with these cases here except for saying that these extreme provisions are in any case the competence of the Council of the higher level, at the suggestion of the local Fraternity Council.

4.    Procedures to follow

Leaving aside the cases indicated in the above point 2, clarifications are given below on the procedures to be followed for temporary provisions and for definitive voluntary withdrawal from the Order.

The first signal of a difficult situation on the part of a brother or sister is manifested by his or her long and systematic absence from the meetings (or by only sporadic participation), without a justified reason. It is therefore necessary for the Council to ask the Secretary to keep a register of attendances and communicate to the Minister the names of the brothers and sisters of whom there is no news. It would be desirable, in such situations, for the person concerned to expose his or her difficulties to the Minister or to another member of the Council on his or her own initiative, but - if this is not so - the Minister must start the dialogue.

If situations of unjustified hindrances emerge from the personal contact, the Minister must submit the case to the examination of the Council in the next meeting.

In the case of provisions requested by the person concerned (temporary leave or definitive withdrawal from the Order) the matter must be treated with great discretion by the Council: it is necessary to be careful not to expose the brother or sister to the judgment of others.

In the case of provisions to be taken on the initiative of the Council (suspension or expulsion from the Order) it is important to reflect very carefully because these situations are more “thorny”. A careful action of animation and recovery by the Council is, therefore, necessary, with the special help of the Spiritual Assistant. If it is not possible to overcome the reasons of the “difficulty” of the person concerned, he or she is amicably asked to withdraw from the Order (temporarily or definitively). Only when all these attempts prove to be useless, shall the Council make its own decisions. Of course, these decisions are not easy, but the co-responsibility of the members of a Council demands that they must not avoid taking care of such cases, should they occur, for the glory of God and love of the Order.

This issue is further proof of how important it is for each brother and sister to have a personal (numbered) folder in the local Fraternity, where all events in his or her fraternal life are registered, beginning from admission right up to death, to the transfer to another Fraternity or definitive withdrawal from the Order. This contributes to the organization of the Fraternity and to its history, because the life of each brother or sister composes the fraternal life of the OFS.

Regarding the minutes of meetings, due to their nature, it is advisable that they be drawn up separately from the matters of ordinary Council management so that the documentation will be readily available in specific minutes if it becomes necessary to send it to the regional/national Council.

5.    Summary of steps to be taken

  1. Verify who the absentees are, for how long they have been away from the Fraternity life and for what reasons;
  2. In the case of unjustified reasons, discuss the matter with the brothers or sisters in a special Council meeting after reading the pertinent points in the Rule (n. 23) and the Constitutions (articles 56 – 59);
  3. After studying our legislation, the Minister and the Spiritual Assistant must promote a fraternal dialogue with the brothers or sisters concerned, and try to lead them back to fraternal communion;
  4. Note down the result of the dialogue in the specific minutes of the Council meeting;
  5. After the time allowed to the brother or sister to return to the Fraternity, in the event that he or she has not resumed normal participation in fraternal life, comes the time to:
  6. If the brother or sister has asked for temporary withdrawal and then does not return to fraternal communion, the Fraternity Council may apply article 56.2 of the GC and decide on suspension;
  7. In the case of definitive voluntary withdrawal from the Order, the local Council must send the Minister of the higher level a copy of the minutes of the meeting and of the correspondence relating to the case;
  8. The Fraternity must specifically record these cases in the book of the minutes of the Council meetings. The documentation relating to each individual case must be filed in the personal folder of the brother or sister in question.